One of my earliest political memories is the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sense that a divided continent was coming back together. Since then, my travels have taken me to different countries which were behind the Iron Curtain. Previously in this series of posts, I’ve been to Berlin and Krakow – and in the last post I will turn to Budapest. In this post, I recall a work trip to Prague where I was reminded that some countries see themselves neither as East or West – but just as having a distinct history and culture.
Go to a University Ball in the UK and the dance floor will be empty until a (mediocre) rock band comes on and a load of drunk students will bop along to songs that they will probably not recall in the morning. The one time I have been to a University Ball in the Czech Republic, I felt I was transported to the set of the Czech equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Lines of students in the well turned out, chandeliered National House of Vinohrady performed elegant dances in near synchronisation to tunes played by a Jazz Orchestra in the corner. Later in the evening, the music become more pop-like but for a few moments at the start of the evening, I was struck by the distinctiveness of Czech culture. Whether in its fight for political freedoms, it’s long history of innovation & collaboration or in its music scene, this distinctiveness can be seen throughout Prague.
When the Iron Curtain began to fall, it was often, simplistically, thought that former communist countries would gradually become more like western Europe. In some ways that could be seen: when I first went to Prague in 2003 there was a rather a-typical Tescos but few other UK brands. Today, walk down the grand Wenceslas Square and many other global brands have joined the grocery retailer: Subway, M&S, Mothercare etc.
But look carefully and there are hints of a narrative which is not about creeping westernisation. Near the statue of Wenceslas, there is a memorial to Jan Palach who set fire to himself in 1969 in protest against the ending of the Prague Spring with the invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies. A few metres away is the balcony from where Vaclav Havel addressed hundreds of thousands of protestors who were shaking their keys to demand they were politically unlocked from communism in 1989. At the heart of this now thriving city centre, monuments mark the fight for national identity and political freedoms which have come from within the Czech Republic.
There have been other, subtler changes in central Prague since I first visited 15 years ago: more signs are marked in Euros – despite this country’s reluctance to join the single currency. At the same time, there are fewer EU flags flapping about. Following an initial enthusiasm for EU membership, the country is increasingly Eurosceptic. Opposition to the EU is not surprising given the Czech’s past: the people rose against a union of states founded on communism so don’t want any hard-won freedoms threatened by a different union, including the EU .
Furthermore, the EU is also not the only relationship that the Czech politicians can draw on, they are members of the Visegrad Group, a distinct union of countries with a shared geographical and politcal history . This history – different to that of countries further west – can be seen in the capital’s buildings. Standing in front of impressive Prague Castle you can see the importance of the city in medieval times, later under the Hapsburgs and now as an independent republic; each stage is reflected in the architecture and additions to these buildings, high above the Vltava river.
This spirit of innovation can be seen in the lower town, too. The Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) is at the centre of Prague but in the 14th Century it was too small so a New Town was built around it; at the same time, the city’s leaders extended inhabitants’ and traders’ rights which led to its expansion to one of the biggest cities in Europe at the time. In the 17th Century, the city’s relative freedoms allowed Jewish population to prosper which can be seen, for example, in the Jewish Cemetery. The Art Nouveau buildings – such as the Municipal House – are reminders of the wealth and influence of the city 3 centuries later, in the early 20th Century, when Czech politicians used influence to play larger role in European politics . The buildings of Prague show the creativity, innovation, freedoms, values and networks that have been part of Czech identity for centuries, rather than being imposed upon the country in recent years.
A sense of a Czech Identity can be seen in the results of the policy choices of its governments. Although the centre of Prague has seen investment, the bus ride from the airport shows that the suburbs remain poor. However, research has found that social reforms helped all levels of Czech Society, unlike in other former ‘Eastern’ countries  and citizens believe in the reforms. As a gay traveller, I am conscious that intolerance is higher in Central & Eastern Europe with 50% uncomfortable with homosexuality but the Czech Republic is more liberal than its neighbours and examples of intolerance much lower . Thinking all ‘Eastern’ countries are the same is false: each country is at a different stage of economic and political integration  with, for example, some ‘Eastern’ economies (e.g. Poland, Hugary, Slovakia, Romania) were more robust than western ones (e.g. Spain, Italy) .
A few days after the student ball in Prague, I was drinking with a Professor from Charles University in Prague in a little back street bar near the Lazarská tram stop, an area increasingly filled with student bars. In many places near here you will find a mix of locals and a few visitors. We discussed the Czech Republic today with its problems and successes; he was quite insistent that his country was not in Eastern Europe but Central Europe, an opinion which is widely held . One of the distinctive elements is its music which can be heard in the streets, bars and concert halls. On my first visit I sat in the main square and watched traditional Czech dancers perform to folk music. A few years later, I sat in Charles University listening to a group play 19th Century Czech string quartets. On both occasions there was obvious pride in the quality expressions of national identity.
Most memorable, though, is a visit to the Reduta Jazz Club. A jazz group including a double bass, an electric guitar and a bass saxophone took to the stage whilst we sat drinking Czech sparkling wine and absinth. It was an unusual collection of instruments but fitted with the spirit of Prague: such a gig might not happen in other European capitals. But this city, at the cross roads of various European cultures, has continually evolved and innovated – politically, socially and musically. Every new generation will play its own sort of music and students will find their own way to dance to it, respectful of its past but rejoicing in their future at the centre of Europe.
 Rohrschneider, R. & Whitefield, S. (2006) Political Parties, Public Opinion and European Integration in Post-Communist Countries: The State of the Art. European Union Politics, 7(1), pp.141–160.
 Balázs, P. [Ed.] (2014) 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain: The state of integration of East and West in the European Union. (Brussels: European Commission).
 Hempson, D. (2009) Becoming ‘European:’ URL: he Diverging Paths of the Czech and Slovak Republics. Origins. 2(11), URL: https://origins.osu.edu/print/68
 Kaufman, R. (2007) Market Reform and Social Protection: Lessons from the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. East European Politics and Societies, 21(1), pp.111–125.